By Steven H. Wilson
“It was probably January or February of 1994. Just months before, in October, 1993, I had chaired the first Farpoint Convention at Marriott’s Hunt Valley Inn, just outside Baltimore…
Farpoint began as a Star Trek con, but we quickly realized that we wanted to be a bit more than that. We wanted to branch out and celebrate some of the other wonderful science fiction properties that were coming into being.
My family and closest friends were in love with Amblin Entertainment’s new “science fact” show, and we wanted our 1994 convention to have at least one seaQuest guest. We also wanted to book someone who would make even casual fans sit up and take notice. Fortunately, seaQuest’s cast included a very talented young man who was fast becoming the hottest teen idol on the planet. Jonathan Brandis’s agent was very open to an appearance contract offer, and Jonathan readily agreed to come to Baltimore. Membership sales skyrocketed. As Teen Beat featured him on more and more covers, and he made the rounds of more and more interview shows, we were on a Brandis-induced high. We had the guy coming to our little con!
And then I came home one night in September, and my wife sadly said, “There was a message on the convention answering machine (yeah, it was 1994!). One of the guests has to cancel.” I dreaded the answer. I hated to lose George Takei or Nana Visitor, our other guests, but we’d recover that. If it was—
“It’s Jonathan Brandis,” she said. “Apparently he’s been feeling very run down since filming started on the second season, and he doesn’t think he should do the con.”
Well, this is the convention business and these things happen. I didn’t freak out. Much. After I picked up the pieces of the glass I had thrown at the wall and scrubbed Mountain Dew off the wallpaper, I called the agent in L.A. and explained what a loss this cancellation was for our con. We didn’t want Jonathan to risk his health, but could they let him know that we have probably a thousand people who have already made their hotel and plane reservations, and they’re coming from all over just to see him? Could he manage to do a one-day appearance, and we’ll pay him 75%?
Before the Mountain Dew was dry on the wall, Jonathan had replied that he had no idea his fans had made long-range plans. He thought it was just a casual thing that people would sort of drop by. Of course he would come up from Florida for the day. Blessed relief!
My wife Renee and I were Jonathan’s handlers for the weekend. (Being con chair has to have some perks.) We met him at the airport Sunday morning. He had flown up with his dad, Greg. Greg was a warm and friendly guy, and obviously very protective of his celebrity son. One of the landmarks near BWI Airport is the distillery where Calvert Whiskey used to be made. Greg launched into stories about his uncle who worked for Calvert Whiskey. Jonathan rolled his eyes. Audibly. Apparently, his dad told lots of stories.
As we drove, Renee reviewed the day’s schedule with them. Jonathan asked about the live stage show that ended the weekend. We explained it was a Baltimore tradition to wrap the convention with a parody of a movie or TV show. This year we were presenting a Deep Space Nine / Babylon 5 / seaQuest DSV crossover. Actors usually couldn’t care less for amateur productions, but Jonathan asked hopefully if his flight out was late enough that he could stay and see the show. I said it was, and Greg said, “We have to stay for that!”
At the hotel, Jonathan sat an autograph table and signed for a line of about a thousand people. In those days, no money changed hands. Everyone who attended the con got an autograph, as long as there was time enough in the day. After a few hours spent developing carpal tunnel syndrome, Jonathan was scheduled to speak onstage. I walked him to the backstage stairs and pointed out the layout—there’s your mic, the audience mic is there, we’ll cue you when your time is running out…
He looked at me and said, “Okay. But what am I supposed to say?” And I realized I’d never asked the poor guy if he had done a solo Q&A session before. After sixteen years in the business, he had never done this kind of personal appearance. “It’s easy,” I told him, “because they already love you and you can’t disappoint them. Tell them how filming is going. Tell them how it’s different to be shooting in Orlando. Tell them a funny story about Darwin. Any time you’re tired of talking, just say, ‘Who has a question?'”
“And,” I told him, “they will ask about William Shatner.” It’s been a long time, but I think Jonathan kind of chuckled and said, “I should be really careful what I say, right?”
Jonathan’s talk went well. I was very busy and probably didn’t hear half of it. I do, however, have a surviving photo of me onstage with Jonathan, alongside my old friend Cindy Geppi Shockey as she presented him with a gift from local fans.
After his talk, Jonathan and Greg stayed in the main ballroom, as promised, to watch our seaQuest parody. I played Nathan Bridger. Memories of the show? Not many. Strutting out in my Sunny’s Surplus jumpsuit to John Debney’s seaQuest DSV theme… Arguing with my young friend Ian Bonds (playing Lucas) over a live video feed with a pretty impressive (for 1994) imitation of a UEO video call. At one point, I adlibbed the line, “Kids. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t send ’em to Singapore!” I got the requisite boos. Michael Fay was very much in the news at the time.
At the end, as the credits ran, we had an actor walk out on stage as Dr. Bob Ballard and try to give a science lesson based on our script. After a couple abortive attempts, he finally said, “The female mammary gland is an amazing piece of biological engineering, and you’ll be seeing lots of them on the next season of seaQuest DSV!” At which point I came out in a bathrobe as Roy Scheider to console Bob, and tell him I’d introduce him to my reporter friend from the Orlando Sentinel. I think Scheider’s angry rant about the quality of the second season scripts had just hit the papers.
Greg and Jonathan loved our silly little show so much that they asked us to ship them tapes of it. Indeed, as we got into the car and were pulling away from the hotel lobby to head to the airport, Jonathan spotted Ian, who had played Lucas in our show. He banged frantically on the armrest of the car and shouted, “Stop! Stop! That’s him! I have to meet that kid!” So I shouted for Ian to come say hi, and he and Jon chatted. Ian was, at fourteen or so, already a seasoned pro who had headlined Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah in New York. He was happy to meet the celebrity guest, but he didn’t lose his cool.
In probably 90 minutes spent together, mostly driving, we actually didn’t talk about seaQuest much. Renee and I make it a point when working with our actor guests not to talk to them about work. But I do recall asking if they liked Florida, and if conditions on set were better or worse than in L.A. Greg said that the set was a lot of fun that year because the DeLuise brothers were a pair of practical jokers.
But I did give in to one fannish question, since I had the boy captive in the car: “Level with me Jon… how was Shatner to work with?” Jon laughed and admitted that he barely got to speak with the celebrated Trek actor, who spent most of his time on set talking to Roy Scheider. That made sense, I figured. Shatner came from the days when the headliner felt ownership in the show. He probably considered Scheider an equal and focused his attention on him the way the President would the leader of a foreign country. Jon went on to say that Shatner wasn’t rude or mean, he was just very focused.
We took a brief moment to get a photo of Jon and Renee together at the airport, and away he and his dad flew. Literally. It was a frantic day, packed with hard work, but I got the sense he was glad he decided to join us after all. I know, looking back, that we’re all glad we got the chance to meet this smart, talented, funny young man who left this world too soon…”